Brazil's chilling penalty shootout win over a courageous Chile was a reminder that a penalty shootout is the closest many of us will come to watching a Christopher-Walken-in-the-Deer-Hunter-esque game of Russian Roulette unfold live.
The spectacle is a sudden, individual trial by combat only crudely related to the team-propelled 120 minutes that proceed it. The shocking thing about penalty shootouts is that some nations, such as Brazil, are relentlessly good from the spot. The Selecao have a 3-1 record in World Cup games that end with PKs. Others, such as England who are 1-6 in major competitions, are eternally impotent.
How does it happen that cycle after cycle of an individual nation's elite footballers are a national joke from the penalty spot? Are they weighed down by a festering national wound wrought by decades of penalty shootout flaccidity? Are those who cannot remember past mistakes in penalty shootout losses condemned to repeat them?
In the spirit of investigation and inquiry, I sought the counsel of an expert, Geir Jordet, to understand why generations of Dutchmen and Englishmen wilt under the crucible conditions of the ordeal.
Part I: "High egotism, misguided escapism and poor performance"
Jordet, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, is the Albert Einstein of penalty shootouts. The 40-year-old Norwegian has spent five years studying every aspect of the psychological dimension of the two-person zero-sum game.
"I am not really interested in penalties," he joked to me via phone from Oslo. "I am fanatical about studying how humans perform under conditions of extreme pressure. Nothing can teach you more about that than the penalty shootout. To me, the shootout is almost entirely a psychological game dependent on how you prepare the players to deal with stress, pressure and performance anxiety."
I began by asking about the weight of history and whether an awareness of past defeats can carry through from one squad to the next. "Absolutely," Jordet said -- a chilling response for any Englishman to hear. The academic refers to a menacingly entitled paper he composed: "Team history and choking under pressure in major soccer penalty shootouts."
"We basically looked at the effect of a team's past on each individual shooter," Jordet explained. "If the team had lost the two previous shootouts, their average conversion rate was 57 percent. If they had no history, that could rise to 76 percent. If they had won two, the conversation rate could be 89 percent. There is a staircase effect working both ways, and for teams like Holland and England, a bad history increases the chance of every subsequent failure."
I ask Jordet what role a goalkeeper plays in the proceedings. "A goalkeeper with ... intentions of getting into his opponents' head are good," Jordet said, though the position must be played with subtlety.
"Edwin van der Sar, in the 2008 Champions League shootout, kept the Chelsea players waiting while he wiped his hands methodically on a towel," the academic explained. "The Chelsea players had to wait at the spot on average for seven seconds. Petr Cech kept his opponents waiting for just .04 seconds, and that difference decided the outcome of the shootout. The Chelsea shooters were just left to stand there with no control over when take kick, marinating in their own stress."
Jordet has also penned a paper titled, "Why do English players fail in soccer penalty shootouts? A study of team status, self-regulation and choking under pressure," which chronicles a litany of English technical failures from "the longest time since winning a major trophy" to "how individualistic a nation is."
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"England is almost as individualistic as the U.S.," Jordet said. "The players know a miss will leave them to be scapegoats ridiculed forever, whereas in Scandinavian countries or Asia, the blame will be collective."
The conclusion of the study suggests the English suffer from "high egotism, misguided escapism and poor performance," which sounds like a lethal cocktail. "Penalty shootouts are a crucial situation that needs composure, finesse and skill, not massive force or effort," Jordet explained. "The true superstars who have all won the individual awards tend to perform worse than everyday players in shootouts, and the high status and expectations the English players bring onto the field makes their fall higher."
"English shooters tend to miss because they have too much to defend, so they exhibit escapism and try and rush through the process to get it over and done with," said Jordet, who has calculated that English players respond to the referee's whistle within 0.28 seconds. "Usain Bolt's reaction has been timed at 0.17 seconds, which is barely quicker."
Part II: How to game the system
I finish by asking Jordet, a Norwegian, to play doctor. If he were a coach and his team went to a shootout in Brazil, what advice would he give his players?
The professor conjures a three-part response. "First, I would normalize the feelings of anxiety the players will certainly experience by telling them everyone will feel horrible, have the sweats and a thousand butterflies. The players need to know they should not hide from those feelings but they should prepare to perform right through them."
"Second, they need to find some way to optimize the way they regulate under those conditions of stress ... many coaches have said you can't practice penalty shootouts because the conditions cannot be replicated, but just having players practice penalties repeatedly is a waste of time," he said. "Guus Hiddink made his South Korean team practice an entire shootout in the actual stadium in 2002. Each player was given just one penalty kick, for which they had to walk not from the halfway line but from the opposite goal line. The pressure was probably only 40 percent of the real thing, but it gave them an edge."
"Finally, I would try to reduce the threat the players experience, which can be done by talking through what the team should do collectively if they miss a shot. Do they have a strategy? Most coaches are afraid to have that discussion because it is hard, but that is exactly why it should be talked though, as the slight comfort it can bring can be the difference."
Jordet would also talk through what the players should do if they score. "Teams that celebrate after a penalty is converted increase the chance of scoring on the next shot because you create infectious emotion that spreads to the rest of the team," he said.
Indeed, if the rest of the world were to follow Jordet's advice the way the celebratory Costa Ricans did, that emotion could be infectious enough to spread through an entire nation.